Language, legitimacy and political theory in Shakespeare?s most dangerous play

The other day I wrote on the Ibishblog that Richard II is my favorite of the early Shakespeare plays, and that I thought it was the one about which he was most careful and into which he put most work. I feel the need to explain this in a little bit more detail in a posting that no longer pays any attention to the Shakespeare Theater Company’s misguided adaptation that has now closed. First of all, I see more care, and indeed carefulness, in Richard II than in not only the early comedies, but also the four history plays that preceded it: Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three, and Richard III. It seems that this first tetralogy proved so popular that Shakespeare went back and did another quartet of histories that are a prequel to the first, beginning with Richard II and culminating in Henry V, which of course sets up the earlier produced Henry VI-Richard III cycle. Most of these eight histories rely on Rafael Holinshed’s Chronicles as their main source, although some clearly also tapped into some accounts. However, Richard II is unique in that it seems to be derived from at least eight separate historical accounts, including Chronicles, a really extraordinary number, and also in literary terms plainly from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (and in at least one famous line Doctor Faustus as well), and possibly even the anonymous play Thomas of Woodstock.

The reason Shakespeare evidently researched, and indeed wrote, Richard II with such care and attention to detail is, of course, that he was playing with fire, and he knew it. Richard II is, after all, about the deposing and murder of a monarch, very heavy stuff for a Renaissance audience. It was even more delicate because of some superficial similarities between Richard and Elizabeth, particularly that they were both childless and frequently criticized for the alleged misbehavior of favorites and sycophants. Later on in her reign, Elizabeth reportedly bitterly complained about the number of public performances of Richard II and reportedly declared, “I am Richard, know ye not that?” The most troubling of these public performances was, of course, the one commissioned by supporters of the Earl of Essex the evening before his ill-fated rebellion. Shakespeare’s company was interrogated in the investigation into the plot, and they told the authorities that they had complained that the play was “so old and so long out of use that they should have a small company at it” but that since they were promised 40 shillings above their usual take, they did it for the money. Possibly. At any rate, Essex’s followers obviously felt a production of the play would be an important gesture setting up their planned deposition of Elizabeth, so the play’s ideas were not only dangerous in theory, they were dangerous in practice as well.

And, indeed, Richard II is hardly the only political Shakespeare play (most of them have at least some element of politics), but it is the one that seems to involve ideas closest to what we now call political theory. It was written after a century of political speculation in England in which the concept of the divine right of kings had been slowly chipped away at by new ideas that began to incorporate more of a sense of the responsibilities of monarchs as well as their prerogatives, and had begun to suggest that political rights were contingent on concomitant responsibilities. Since at least the Magna Carta, the English monarchy had been first among equals in a super stratum of aristocrats that ruled the country. But, the idea that there was an element of meritocracy or minimal competency and responsibilities that might trump divine right and coronation, was slow to enter into theoretical conceptualizations of government. And, of course, generalized conceptions of political responsibility as an essential component of political legitimacy go far beyond simply respecting the recognized, specific and limited rights of peers and commons. Leaving people alone within clearly defined and limited spheres is one thing, but expectations of good governance are something entirely different. By the time Shakespeare composed Richard II in about 1595, such notions had been gaining ground for a number of decades. Early understandings of constitutionalism and limited monarchy were becoming more widespread, articulated in formulations such as Henry de Bracton’s influential dictum that the king serves “under God and under the law because the law maketh a king,” and Sir John Fortesque’s formulation that, “the king exists for the sake of the kingdom, and not the kingdom for the sake of the king.”

In Richard II, Shakespeare dramatizes the tension between what are essentially medieval notions of divine right and political legitimacy versus emerging Renaissance conceptualizations of political responsibilities and merit in the persons of Richard and Bolingbroke. He lays out the case clearly for both perspectives, but scrupulously doesn’t take sides, so that it has been entirely possible for commentators over the centuries to read either perspective into the play. Indeed, Shakespeare makes it more difficult to adopt one position or the other absolutely by focusing the first half of the play, before the deposition scene, largely on abuses and mismanagement by Richard (Bolingbroke’s case), and the second half, following the deposition, rebuilding sympathy for Richard, his position and his predicament, and calling attention to the sacrilege of his deposition (Richard’s case). And this budding sense of constitutionalism is reflected in the Bolingbroke co-conspirators’ concern that Richard confess to a bill of particulars against his rule so that “the commons will be satisfied,” suggesting that there are red lines which a monarch may not cross without inviting deposition, and also that Parliament must be satisfied for the resignation and transfer of power to a new king to be sustainable, in spite of the plausible claim of succession forwarded by Bolingbroke.

Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian effectiveness and skills are contrasted with Richard’s grand regal theatricality. Richard is, at heart, a drama queen. He revels as much in his abjection when he is deposed and imprisoned as he ever did in his Royal Majesty on the throne. One of the most remarkable, and for many commentators troubling, aspects of Richard II is the seemingly bizarre conduct of the title character when confronted with the Lancastrian rebellion. He swings wildly back and forth between despair and defeatism, a new experience by which he seems to be truly enthralled, and vainglorious assertions of his divine right and protection by God. His despair speeches are justly famous, most notably “for God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” etc. The crux of Richard’s rule is precisely this theatricality, this incessant role-playing. Bolingbroke knows it, which is one of the reasons he is able to move against him so effectively.

Richard doesn’t rule exactly as much as, literally, act like a king. Even after his dramatic and crushing defeat, when he has come to effectively surrender, his uncle York remarks of him, “Yet looks he like a king: behold, his eye, as bright as is the eagle’s, lightens forth controlling majesty.” Apparently, he always did. When Richard, wallowing in abjection during the deposition scene, becomes hysterical when Northumberland attempts to force him to read out loud the bill of particulars of his misrule to “satisfy the commons,” Richard demands a mirror which he then histrionically smashes, declaring “A brittle glory shineth in this face: As brittle as the glory is the face; For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers. Mark, silent king, the moral of this sport, How soon my sorrow hath destroy’d my face.” Bolingbroke, however, has his number, icily countering, “The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed, The shadow of your face.” Precisely so. Richard’s rule has been a shadow of a rule, whereas Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian insurgency, quite possibly planned from the beginning and the challenge against Mowbray that may have been designed as an opening salvo leading precisely to this seizure of power, is all too real.

This tension between political effectiveness on the one hand versus legitimacy on the other hand, as well as the artifice and theatricality of monarchy is played out very clearly in the language throughout Richard II. It is the only of Shakespeare’s plays that is almost entirely in very precise pentameter and much of it, especially in the court scenes, involving not blank verse but rhyming couplets. Normally Shakespeare is very judicious in his application of couplets, reserving them for moments of special emphasis or the conclusion of a thought, an interaction or a narrative development. In Richard II, Shakespeare uses a wild proliferation of rhyming couplets as well as a strict adherence to pentameter in order to achieve the effect of formality and faux grandeur in Richard’s court. Foregrounding the artifice of language, much less naturalistic than Shakespeare’s already stilted and extremely idiosyncratic phrasings and constructs, helps dramatize the histrionic artifice behind Richard’s entire hold on power. It’s all a show.

Bolingbroke’s grasp of that allows him to use the actual mechanics of power — appealing to public opinion and flattering the common folk, playing on the anxieties of his fellow nobles, making the specific case of mismanagement against Richard and his cronies thereby raising the question of political responsibilities balancing political legitimacy and divine rights, marshaling and deploying quickly military allies at a moment of the enemy’s exposure (Richard’s trip to Ireland), constructing a plausible claim of succession so as not to disrupt the established order of monarchy, etc. — to unseat Richard with relatively little effort. It’s also impossibly rapid. Richard II is one of many Shakespeare plays in which there are multiple time registers in simultaneous and impossible operation, and in which the audience is manipulated into assuming that significant amount of time has passed when in fact according to the literal chronology of events, or at least one of them, a ludicrously short amount of time has actually gone by. In this case it would appear that mere days pass by between Bolingbroke’s banishment and his deposition of Richard.

We note, of course, that while the formality of the rhymed couplets in the early scenes underscores a presumed common understanding of authority and legitimacy in Richard’s court (soon to be tested by the rebellion), the specific content of many of the couplets, especially those of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, are discordant or combative in their content. So, behind the careful formal harmony of the language lurks significant disharmony of meaning, in the same way that in the first scene both Bolingbroke and Mowbray can be read as threatening Richard in different ways behind formal professions of obeisance. It’s noteworthy that John of Gaunt’s condemnation of Richard’s rule, which sets the stage and makes the case for the rebellion, is entirely in blank verse without any rhyming at all, suggesting that formality which calls for strict deference and obedience is no longer directing his words. Once the action has moved away from Richard’s court into the contest for power driven by the Bolingbroke rebellion, the insistence on rhyming couplets, but not on pentameter, abates in the text. There are still some, of course, particularly from Richard himself, or in the normal Shakespearean manner to complete a thought or foreground some aspect of the narrative for dramatic emphasis. But couplets do not go with either the discord of civil conflict or Bolingbroke’s Machiavellian and goal-oriented political style. Even Richard increasingly abandons rhyming as the conflict careens towards its rapid and decisive resolution.

However, once Bolingbroke assumes the throne, just like the argument over who killed Gloucester, the rhyming couplets suddenly stage a dramatic return, although their structure is significantly different this time. In effect, what the language is telling us is that Bolingbroke understands the need for theatricality and artifice in a royal court, the formality that incessant rhymed couplets within the pentameter convey. But, he doesn’t quite know how to use them the way Richard did, and his couplets appear self-defeating. By the end of the play, he appears entirely trapped in them. It’s the first instance in which we have a sense of the limitations of his political skills. Bolingbroke is, in effect, unconvincingly mimicking Richard, a natural and accomplished actor on the stage of the court. He, as Richard says, “knows well how to get,” but at the earliest stages of his new reign, because of the language, we begin to wonder if he knows well how to use. In fact, it falls to his son, the future Henry V, to really take the power that has been usurped and put it to maximum effect before all those gains are then squandered during the disastrous reign of his own son, Henry VI.

Richard’s addiction to artifice and playacting extends itself into his greatest abjection scene, the rather complicated speech he gives in his jail cell in Pomfret, alone, impoverished, friendless and in mortal peril. And in this in amazing self-indulgent exercise in relishing abjection, Richard now owns, rather brilliantly, blank verse as Bolingbroke and his court struggle to resume the formality of couplets that characterized Richard’s court. Behind that gigantic and impressive façade of theatricality lies a hollow shell of a man. In the deposition scene, when Bolingbroke asks him, ?Are you contented to resign the crown?? Richard replies, ?Ay, no; no, ay.? This, of course, when spoken, is a homonym for as ?I know no I.? He is not only a man divided against himself, as he says ?if I turn mine eyes upon myself, I find myself a traitor with the rest; For I have given here my soul’s consent, To undeck the pompous body of a king,? he also doesn?t know who he is: “I have no name, no title, No, not that name was given me at the font? And know not now what name to call myself!” This is not so much a loss of identity as the uncovering of a great absence within Richard that was always there, as he calls himself a ?king of snow? who is melting away ?in water drops? as he weeps for his lost throne. It was not only the crown that was hollow, but also the man who wore it. Alone in his prison cell before his murder, Richard imagines a multiplicity of people born of his own imagination, ?Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented: sometimes am I king; Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar, And so I am: then crushing penury, Persuades me I was better when a king; Then am I king’d again: and by and by, Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke, And straight am nothing.? All in his own imagination, both monarch and prisoner are roles to be played, acts of will on his own solipsistic, even narcissistic not to say monomaniacal, part. At his core, beyond these roles, is nothing.

In all of this I see the enormous care Shakespeare took in constructing Richard II, sticking entirely to pentameter and carefully using the frequency and nature of couplets or blank verse to reflect different political situations, attitudes and skill sets. As I already noted, Shakespeare refuses to take sides in this clash between a crisis of governance versus a crisis of legitimation. Richard correctly predicts that Northumberland will not long stick with Bolingbroke after he is crowned Henry IV, and so it proves. Indeed, Northumberland’s party led by Hotspur subsequently invokes the overthrow and murder of Richard as Exhibit A against Henry in their failed attempt to depose him. As first John of Gaunt and then the Bishop of Carlisle, among others, predict, Richard’s unacceptable mismanagement and then illegitimate deposition by Bolingbroke will kick off a long series of wars, and Shakespeare seems to see in these twin crises of governance and legitimation a kind of original sin which the English state needed to work through via the bloodshed of the ensuing civil conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster.

The one lesson Shakespeare seems to have taken to heart from his reading of this period of English history is the advice he attributes by Henry IV to his son, the future Henry V, that foreign wars are the key to English tranquility, happiness and political effectiveness. On his deathbed he confesses, ?God knows, my son, By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways, I met this crown,” and, that, ?I had many living to upbraid, My gain of it by their assistances; Which daily grew to quarrel and to bloodshed, Wounding supposed peace. All these bold fears, Thou seest with peril I have answered; For all my reign hath been but as a scene, Acting that argument.? ?Therefore, my Harry,? he advises, ?Be it thy course to busy giddy minds, With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, May waste the memory of the former days.? This harkens back to his uncle York’s declaration of Richard’s grandfather, Edward, that “when he frown’d, it was against the French, And not against his friends; his noble hand, Did will what he did spend and spent not that, Which his triumphant father’s hand had won; His hands were guilty of no kindred blood, But bloody with the enemies of his kin.” In other words, the English are now embroiled in civil conflicts based on conflicting narratives and if ?giddy minds? are allowed to dwell on those narratives, civil conflict will erupt again immediately (as it does after the conquest of France and the death of Henry V). Even Henry IV?s effort to smooth things over by pardoning opponents like Aumerle and Carlisle does not resolve anything. The answer is foreign wars, especially against France. They provide an alternative focus for aggression, a change of subject from internal conflicts and a ready path to legitimation through patriotism and appeals to national glory. If Shakespeare?s depiction of Henry V?s triumphant rule is anything to go by, it seems he thought this excellent political advice and sound judgment indeed.